The Lakers are still the team to beat at the top of the rankings, but trading for James Harden and a couple of impressive wins has the Brooklyn Nets shooting up the rankings fast.
1. Lakers (11-4 Last Week No. 1). Despite taking their foot off the gas in the second half Monday against the Warriors — you can’t do that against Stephen Curry teams — the Lakers are still clear-and-away the best team in the NBA right now. They have the best net rating, the top-ranked defense, and they are fifth in offense — and shooting 39.1% from three as a team. Los Angeles heads out on a seven-game road trip that starts with a good test against Milwaukee Thursday.
2. Clippers (10-4, LW 4). The Clipper offense has been on fire the past couple of weeks, a 122 offensive rating the past seven games (the league average is 111.5), and that is racking them up wins. Paul George remains a key reason for the surge (24.8 points a game, shooting 51% on 8 threes a game), while Kawhi Leonard has been more up and down. Los Angeles ball movement has been spectacular of late and role players are stepping up. All of that covers up a still pedestrian defense so far this season (20th in the league over those same seven games) that has to get better if Los Angeles wants to challenge that team down the hall.
3. Nets (9-6, LW 11). Brooklyn pushed all its chips into the middle of the table trading for James Harden — the Harden/Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving big three is the most expensive trio in the history of the NBA (passing the Warriors three of Curry/Thompson/Green this year). Harden and Durant have had the offense humming and the ball flying around for two games, including an impressive win over the Bucks, and now Kyrie Irving is expected to make his return tonight (Wednesday) in Cleveland. One thing to watch: This team’s defense has struggled the last two games, as expected, and if that continues it will become a playoff issue.
4. Bucks (9-5, LW 2). How much Jrue Holiday matters to Milwaukee was evident Monday in the loss to Brooklyn. When Holiday got his rest in the fourth quarter, Harden and Durant hunted Pat Connaughton and Dante DiVincenzo for isolation matchups and torched them. The Bucks also need to find a way to get Holiday more involved in the offense, his 19% usage rate is the lowest since his rookie season and too low for a player of his quality. He’s still averaging 15.7 points and 5.1 assists a game, but he can do more.
5. Jazz (10-4 LW 9). When Rudy Gobert is on the court, the Jazz have a defensive rating of 103, which would be the best in the NBA. When he sits, that jumps by 12.7 to a rating of 115.7, which would rank second-worst in the league. This is more than a “this is why Gobert is in the running for DPOY” note; if the Jazz don’t clean this up, it will be a postseason issue. Utah has won six in a row, including a quality win against Denver last week, and they have been able to stay coronavirus free, which helps.
6. Celtics (8-4, LW 3). He looked rusty (3-of-13 shooting) and had to leave early after an elbow to the ribs, but having Kemba Walker back in the rotation is huge for the Celtics offense (especially with Jayson Tatum still out). The Celtics remain shorthanded due to COVID-19, but if that means more Tacko Fall time it’s a win for everybody. Good tests Wednesday and Friday night against the 76ers (come on basketball gods, give us some Tacko vs. Embiid).
7. Pacers (8-5, LW 8). Indiana was one of the winners of the Harden trade: Victor Oladipo wanted out and was likely bolting as a free agent, and in his place they end up with a quality scoring wing in Caris LeVert who is under contract for a couple of years after this one. The biggest winner of the trade was LeVert himself because doctors found a small mass on his kidney during an MRI that was part of Indiana’s physical — that find may save his life. There is no timeline for LeVert’s return to the court, but that is not near the important part of this story.
8. Spurs (8-6, LW 15). This year’s edition in San Antonio has some classic Spurs trademarks: A top-10 defense (currently 9th in the league), and they don’t beat themselves (lowest turnover rate in the league, top 10 in defensive rebounding and opponent free throw rate). Add to that maybe the best bench unit in the league led by Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, and you have the makings of a play-off, or at least play-in games, team in the West. The Spurs showed all that with a quality win on MLK day beating the Trail Blazers.
9. Trail Blazers (8-6, LW 7). Brutal week for Portland with two of its three best players breaking bones and now out for extended periods. CJ McCollum is out a month with a broken foot; he had been playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 26.7 points a game and being more aggressive from beyond the arc (and hitting 44.1% of those). Jusuf Nurkic averaged 10.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a game, plus he keeps the ball moving and is a critical defensive anchor. This team was not right without him. It all puts more on the shoulders of Damian Lillard and the Blazer role players.
10. Suns (7-5 LW 5). Phoenix is a little hard to get a read on because they’ve become a team that plays up or down to the level of their competition — they beat a good Pacers team on Saturday, but sandwiched around that were losses to Detroit and Washington. Phoenix’s defense has been terrible its last five games — a 117.5 defense rating, via Cleaning the Glass — and a lot of that is because their starting five are getting torched on that end. Good test coming up with two against Denver.
11. 76ers (9-5 LW 6). What impact will the trade talk have on Ben Simmons? He was very close to being part of a deal that brought James Harden to Philadelphia, sometimes that throws guys off their game and sometimes it motivates them. In the two games since the trade, Simmons has averaged 10.5 points on 41.2% shooting, with 13 rebounds and 10.4 assists a game (stats not out of line with the rest of his season). Philly is 9-2 when Joel Embiid plays this season and 0-3 when he sits (which kind of strengthens his early MVP case).
12. Nuggets (7-7 LW 13). Denver’s starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — is outscoring teams by a wild 14.8 points per 100 possessions (thanks to an insane 130 offensive rating, covering up a struggling defense). The Nuggets second units were getting torched, but Mike Malone has found a stabilizing influence in the second unit with JaMychal Green at the five. Denver has the net rating of an 9-5 team but has been unlucky to start the season (we’re not holding that against them).
13. Grizzlies (7-6, LW 20). Memphis went 4-4 without him, but now Ja Morant is back — 17 points on 50% shooting and 8 assists a game in the two games he has played since returning from a sprained ankle — and the Grizzlies are back to getting in the paint and racking up wins. Memphis has won four in a row and now has two against a banged up Portland, then two against Sacramento. The winning streak could continue.
14. Warriors (7-6, LW 14). Monday’s comeback win against the Lakers was a reminder of the potency of the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll and the challenges of containing a red-hot Curry. Games like that have some people trying to put him in the MVP conversation. I’m not sure the Warriors will win enough games for that conversation to really happen. The value of Green has been evident this season, the Warriors defense is 6.4 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (and would be top five in the league), and the offense flows better with him keeping the ball moving.
15. Hawks (6-7 LW 16). Atlanta’s middle-of-the-pack offense this season doesn’t seem to live up to the talent level of players on the court. Part of the issue is just spacing. The Trae Young/John Collins pick-and-roll is destroying teams, forcing a switch and getting Collins rolling to the rim, but with Clint Capela lurking in the dunker’s spot the thing gets gummed up. Young playing off the ball more might help, but he is not comfortable there yet. Young also only shooting 27.4% from three this season — and taking too many 30-footers he can’t make at a Curry/Lillard pace — is also an issue.
16. Mavericks (6-7, LW 10). Kristaps Porzingis has looked solid in his return, averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game (his three-point shooting is still rounding into form, give it time). Dallas has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and at maybe the worst time as they head into a condensed and tough part of the schedule with 10 more games in 18 days (up to Feb. 4). They still have Luka Doncic, however, and he pulled out probably the best assist of the season so far this week.
LUKA. MAGIC. pic.twitter.com/cgKdeI0epl
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) January 17, 2021
17. Knicks (7-8, LW 23). A new coach and a new system haven’t changed how teams are defending the Knicks this season: Pack the paint (maybe with a zone), and dare them to shoot over the top and beat you. The Knicks did that pretty well in a quality win over Boston this week, then beat the stumbling Magic despite the threes not falling. Austin Rivers is solid from three, Obi Toppin is back healthy and he is a threat, and the team’s shooting should improve once Alec Burks returns. But teams are going to let Elfrid Payton and RJ Barrett fire away from deep.
18. Raptors (5-8, LW 27). Toronto’s offense has been on fire the past couple of weeks, a 119.5 net rating their last seven games, which is second-best in the NBA. Mostly that has come because the Raptors have been taking and making more threes. Toronto has been unlucky this season, they have the net rating of a 7-6 team, but they have struggled going 2-5 in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes), including Pascal Siakam having back-to-back game-winners rim out. That kind of luck will even out over time, and the Toronto record will climb.
19. Hornets (6-8, LW 12). LaMelo Ball has been racking up the stats, accolades, and highlights early this season, but a lot of his passes have landed to Miles Bridges and that man can finish with the best of them (see the video below). The Hornets have dropped three in a row, including a pair to Toronto, with a little break they return to action with the Bulls and then a set of two against Orlando, two teams the Hornets are tied with in the rankings — string together wins and Charlotte can separate itself and have an early leg up in the playoff chase.
— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) January 15, 2021
20. Thunder (6-7, LW 19). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rightfully draws the “future cornerstone” talk in Oklahoma City, but Luguentz Dort continues to make plays and step up. This past week against the Bulls he had 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 steals, joining Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the only Thunder players with a 20/5/5 game before turning 22. The Thunder are 1-5 at home but 5-1 on the road and heading out for five in a row on the road starting tonight in Denver then heading to take on both Los Angeles teams.
21. Bulls (6-8, LW 28). During their four-game losing streak earlier this month, where Chicago was up by double digits in every game but could not hold on, coach Billy Donovan talked about this team learning to win. They have the last two, beating a good Dallas team and Houston — and they are doing it with an offense that has found its groove (117.3 offensive rating, sixth-best in the league, over their last seven games). Can that offense continue against some real tests in the Lakers and Celtics over the next seven days?
22. Heat (5-7 LW 17). Miami is better than this ranking, but a combination of injuries and the coronavirus have hit this team’s rotation hard — it has had eight different starting lineups in 12 games. It’s hit the Heat’s transition defense particularly hard. Miami is in a string of two-game sets: they lost both to Philly, split with Detroit, and now head out on the road for two against Toronto followed by two against Brooklyn. Tough time to get their feet back under them.
23. Pelicans (5-8, LW 21). Zion Williamson is still putting up numbers — 22.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, shooting 57.5%. However, he still reminds us of a young Blake Griffin — 71.3% of his shots come at the rim and 96.6% within 10 feet. His cutting, his athleticism, and his monster dunks matter because they are efficient shots (and his gravity draws defenders to create space for others), but the next step in his game is to improve his handles to create room for himself and add a jumper that defenses need to respect.
24. Cavaliers (6-7, LW 24). Cleveland did well jumping into the James Harden mega-trade, landing the center of the future in Jarrett Allen plus Taurean Prince (who got Kevin Porter Jr.’s old locker, which caused Porter to throw a tantrum that apparently will have him off the team soon). The Cavaliers will have to pay Allen this off-season when he is a restricted free agent, but he helps a team on both ends of the court and fits the timeline of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. The center of the present, Andre Drummond, made his statement (and upped his trade value) with 33 points and 23 boards against the Knicks.
— NBA (@NBA) January 16, 2021
25. Rockets (4-8 LW 22). They found their James Harden trade and went with the package of picks (Brooklyn) over the established star (Ben Simmons and Philadelphia). Maybe that was about getting the franchise out of the luxury tax, but what the Rockets do with those picks (especially in 2024 and beyond) will determine how they did in this trade. Victor Oladipo looked sharp and scored 32 in his Rockets debut. Will he play well enough they want to keep him at a high salary, and will he want to stay or does Oladipo have his eyes elsewhere (such as Miami)?
26. Magic (6-8 LW 18). Orlando has lost six games in a row after a fast start, and they are doing it by being bad on both ends of the floor, but particularly on offense where they miss Markelle Fultz, and have had to trust rookie Cole Anthony at the point. Anthony shows flashes of progress, but he continues to struggle and is still shooting 32.1% overall this season and 22.4% from three. Nikola Vucevic is playing at an All-Star level again, but it’s not enough and opponents work to limit his touches. Good news that Evan Fournier is set to return to action.
27. Kings (5-9, LW 25). Sacramento’s defense is historically bad — their 121.8 defensive rating so far this season would not only be the worst all time, it would clear that bar by 4.2 points (“beating” the 2019 Cavaliers). Sacramento has given up 122 points in more than eight consecutive games. The main reason is that teams are hitting shots at a high rate against them from pretty much everywhere on the court — the Kings aren’t defending anything well, particularly the three ball. Their half-court defense is the worst in the league, and they don’t stop anyone in transition. Luke Walton’s seat may be getting warm (but is coach-in-waiting Alvin Gentry going to fix the defense?).
28. Wizards (3-8 LW 26). No team has been hit as hard by COVID-19 as Washington, which had six players test positive and hasn’t played in nine days and counting because of it. How they will come out of this is anybody’s guess, but if they return to action on Friday night it will be on the road against Milwaukee, the start of 7-of-9 on the road. A tough way to get their rhythm and conditioning back.
29. Pistons (3-10 LW 29). Detroit overpaid to get Jerami Grant out of Denver, but he has shown some promise with the ball in his hands this season averaging 24.9 points per game with an above-average 59.1 true shooting percentage on a 26.4 usage rate. A lot has been asked of him, but Grant is growing into the role. Stat that made me sad: Blake Griffin does not yet have a dunk this season.
30. Timberwolves (3-9, LW 30). If you’re looking for a bright spot, Minnesota’s defense has been less bad the last couple of weeks, almost middle of the pack (17th in the NBA over its last six games). That’s not accounting for wins, however, because of the team’s offensive struggles. The news of Karl-Anthony Towns testing positive for COVID-19 — the disease that killed his mother and took several other Towns family members — was a punch to the gut. Hopefully, Towns returns soon, healthy and back to his vintage self. Our thoughts are with him.